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I'm a third-year PhD student at a university in the Netherlands. The program is normally four years but students finish averagely in 4.5 years. By the end of each year we have progress evaluation. The first and second went well, just some advice, nothing critical. However, about 10 days ago I received a shocking feedback from my supervisor saying that it's better to quit because we (the committee) don't think you will be able to finish. Me and my supervisor then discussed things back and forth, and I argued that I had big delays due to covid and he agreed with me, but still the advice is to stop. And if I want to continue I have to try to find something (somehow) in 3 months and present again in front of different committee. And he won't be there.

The thing is, we have very bad data. Some interesting insights but his general expression is that we can't publish anything out of it. Of course he is stressed about the grant he got for the project and that the project didn't work as desired, but does that give him the right to want to terminate my PhD?

The thing is I'm still in shock and don't understand why this is happening. And more, why now? If I was a bad PhD, why not let me go before?

I'm sorry I'm just sad and confused at the moment. I don't know where to go and whom to ask for advice.

Edit: so the committee is pretty much useless and the supervisor is not interested in my data or PhD anymore. He can't however effectively terminate my contract, I can stay but mostly no degree in the end.

Should I fight against that somehow? Should I ask for ombudsman advice? Or maybe just cut loses with all the stress and anxiety I'm getting from all this?

Update: the ombudsman sympathized and suggested to leave once I manage to find work somewhere else.

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    I am so sorry that you are in this situation.
    – Neuchâtel
    Aug 29, 2022 at 20:20
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    Are you fully funded with stipend? The advice is a bit different if you are paying v.s. if they are paying you.
    – Clumsy cat
    Aug 29, 2022 at 20:38
  • 6
    I am a bit confused here… is the underlying issue that the project is not recoverable so the funding is disappearing? Why would the supervisor not be at the next meeting?
    – Dawn
    Aug 29, 2022 at 20:42
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    @Clumsycat I'm fully funded until the end of fourth year.
    – Zen
    Aug 29, 2022 at 20:50
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    There is no question in the post that anyone can answer. Aug 30, 2022 at 3:01

9 Answers 9

56

Knowing that the OP is in the Netherlands allows for a more tailored response.

In the Netherlands most PhD students enjoy employment as an "AIO". This is full employment contract that gives the PhD "student" all the rights and benefits of a normal employee of the university. Since you have satisfactorily passed your previous performance reviews, it will be very hard for the university to make a case for terminating your contract (unless you give them cause to do so).

This employment contract however is formally distinct of the process of getting a PhD. While the stated goal of the employment contract will be to prepare you for getting your PhD, there is no guarantee that this will be the case.

Essentially, your advisor seems to have given up faith that your current project will lead to something. Rather than trying to get your PhD back on the rails, they seem to want to convince you to quit (because firing you is hard). This will save face for them. PhD candidates quit, it happens. If you stay, this will reflect badly on them as the failure of the project will become their failure. They are trying to make their problem your problem

This leaves the OP in a tough spot. Their contract as an AIO will likely require them to report to their line manager, which in all likelihood is their advisor. So, while some have given the advice to try to find a new advisor, this is not so simple, since their funding is essentially linked to their advisor. They will not only have to find someone willing to act as a promotor, they also have to persuade the department to transfer them to a different line manager. This may or may not be possible.

On the other hand, it seems your advisor is effectively refusing to do their job. So, you might have a recourse in complaining about this to their line manager (probably the institute director). However, this may also escalate the situation in such away that it becomes hard to resolve, and your best outcome becomes accepting a severance package.

My best advice is to get advice from somebody that actually knows the situation in your department. In principle, you should have been assigned a secondary advisor that you can talk to in case of conflict with your advisor (but unfortunately this does not always happen), you might be able to talk to this person. Alternatively, contact your university's ombudsperson for advice.

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    I contacted the ombudsperson and indeed the situation is really complicated. They said I could go against my supervisor decision, but at the same time, I won't get much support from him along the way. That implies a risk of working hard without earning PhD in the end. Hence, wasting more years. The other option they suggested is to basically cut loses and find a job/PhD somewhere else.
    – Zen
    Sep 7, 2022 at 11:22
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(Edit; TooTea points out that you specified the Netherlands in another comment. I'm going to leave this answer basically intact, because I think it best covers the general case, but there are some additional notes in italics.)

So it's not impossible that you missed some poorly articulated indications that this project had issues. Some cultures don't give very direct criticism. Impossible to say without a lot more information, but it's neither here nor there at this point. (If the supervisor is culturally Dutch this seems less likely, they probably just didn't keep track of things well enough to spot the problem when it was smaller).

For whatever reason, your supervisor is not going to help you anymore, but I see no reason you should quit.

You are fully funded, and so there is little reason to walk away prematurely. There are a couple of ways you could play this, depending on your priorities;

  1. You want to optimise your chances of graduation. It's not exactly great odds, but they would improve a lot of you could find another advisor. Is there anyone else at your institution who might be relevant to your topic? Have a chat with them, and start out just asking for their perspective. Tell them you fear you may have misunderstood earlier communication, and maybe missed a big problem. If they agree that the situation seems strange, and there wasn't a clear problem earlier, ask if they think you could graduate. If they think it possible, ask if they would be willing to supervise your last year. During this conversation absolutely resist the urge to say anything rude about your current advisor, it will kill any chance that another academic will take you on.

(This is apparently complicated by the funding stipulations, as described in TimRias's answer. I'd still advise you start with this chat though. Another faculty member who was supportive and willing to take you on is probably the best way to persuade the department to transfer the funding).

  1. Maybe you actually don't want that stress anymore? A reasonable move at this point would be to do the minimal work required to present something to a committee, and spend the rest of your time job hunting. I suspect that by creating a minimal thesis to present you would make it harder for your supervisor to kick you out earlier, therefor maximise your time on the stipend. Having longer to job hunt, particularly while you can honestly say you are still working towards the PhD, might be very beneficial. Maybe this isn't the most ethical of approaches, but your supervisor's failure to communicate well (or possibly just lack of oversite) has put you in an unfortunate position, so I think it's justifiable to prioritise your own long term security now.

(With reference to TimRias's description of your funding model, this looks like a very viable approach. They would struggle to force you out if you just coasted for the remainder of your funding period).

Whatever you do, best of luck. I'm sorry you got this thrown at you.

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    Not sure where you are, but in the U.S. another angle for this second option is to change your PhD into an MS or an MPS degree. I know many PhDs who, due to problems with their advisor or research or both, opted to meet smaller research requirements to get another MS degree or shifted to a practical project (capstone or internship) to get an MPS degree. That worked out well (in terms of good employment) for everyone I know who did it, so I would not think of it as 'quitting' so much as 'adapting to the situation'.
    – cr0
    Aug 30, 2022 at 17:48
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    OP wrote they're in the Netherlands (which is generally somewhat on the "direct" end of the scale culture-wise), but of course it's possible their advisor comes from a different culture.
    – TooTea
    Aug 30, 2022 at 19:12
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    @TooTea Your guess is right, unfortunately.
    – Zen
    Aug 31, 2022 at 15:58
  • @Zen Given the direct nature of the Netherlands, possibly you can tell your advisor that you will not be quitting, and now the problem of the project going badly is in fact their problem again. And since the easy/low-risk solution of getting you to quit and making the problem go away didn't work, maybe they have some higher-risk options to offer that might result in salvaging your PhD. Sep 6, 2022 at 16:01
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I can only answer in general terms, because you do not specify which country and which department. Being "in Europe" (note it is a continent with heterogeneous laws), you may have some legal resource, but the most important thing is that you have a contract and money.

I will therefore focus on the half-full glass, looking forward to a way out of this situation.

In no PhD's contracts is written that the employer will give you a PhD, so your situation is not illegal per se ... and you have the big advantage that your financial/working relationship with the university is independent from your relation with an (any) advisor. You have to find a new advidsor, because you have already a salary to perform research (yes, I know, with no renewal perspective... welcome to the academic world!).

Now is time to bang to all the doors of all the department and even neighbouring departments. You have money, you have some data, you have one-two years left on the contract, ask every professor, every heads of department if they can take you in to bring your PhD to an end.

You still have money and time, so your situation is already quite stable. You just need to find a different thesis advisor with a different thesis topic.

Basically you are restarting your PhD, and you have two years of experience, so it is possible to finish your PhD in one-two years (hard, but possible).

Good luck!

Ps: you may be able to write proposals for grants. Time-consuming, but then you may obtain your own money to perform research.

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  • I updated that it's in the Netherlands. I understand that finding a new advisor could is an option, but unfortunately in the department, he's the only one with expertise to judge the work. A different thesis topic in a different department is an interesting idea, but do you think that it's common that students move to other departments to start over, while failing (on paper) their previous project?
    – Zen
    Aug 30, 2022 at 8:22
  • How common? a lot: you bring money and workforce, you will find an advisor with more than one neuron willing to host you. Please note that you should keep the door open also for cooperations with other unis and research institution in the country. Additionally, if you want to move out of the academia, you have now money and time to build up you network in the private sector, but you have to be proactive and build the relationship. Join student associations, think tanks, professional association, you are in a very invidiable position (again: you have a salary for granted!)
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 30, 2022 at 9:06
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    @EarlGrey Although the OP has a contract, this does not mean that they can do as they want. The contract will come of contractual obligations, including reporting to a line manager, which in all likelihood will be their advisor. It is not at all clear, they can take their money and start working for a different professor.
    – TimRias
    Aug 30, 2022 at 9:33
  • @TimRias "the supervisor is not interested in my data or PhD anymore. He can't however effectively terminate my contract, I can stay but mostly no degree in the end." It is quite clear that OP has a running contract, surely with formal obligations that OP can fulfill since he passed two (2!) yearly evaluations.
    – EarlGrey
    Aug 30, 2022 at 9:35
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    @Zen Actually, you did not update that the question is based in the Netherlands. Please EDIT that fact into the QUESTION and not as an ephemeral comment.
    – CGCampbell
    Aug 30, 2022 at 12:37
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Dead ends happen in research, I don't think it is feasible to quit PhD over a dead end. However, there is something you should know, a dead end is a big setback. You will most likely take much longer than average length to graduate. Now you say the data is very bad. You could try to side step to a similar topic with different data to analyze.

However, you will need to persuade your supervisor to do this. Tell him/her you understand the problem and you are ready to start over. Obviously it will not be starting from zero, you gained experience, you have now better tools to deal with the task. If he/she accepts, you will probably finish in two more years and everything will be fine.

If not, try to find another supervisor. Talk with the dean or head of graduate studies for help. They might be willing to help you find another supervisor with similar interests. This route will probably take longer as you will have to find another supervisor who might have different work habits.

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First of all, I'm sorry to hear about your situation, and I truly hope you'll find a solution.

I've been in the situation myself where it was hard to publish anything during my PhD, since most of the results we were getting were negative results, as in "the answer to this question is no, what we want to achieve is not doable". Took me long long enough to realize that: "negative" results are still results, and it is just a matter of what one does with it. It can be hard, that no one can deny, but you probably can do something with the data you acquired. Furthermore, the data, as bad as they can be, come from somewhere: you provided some work, and by doing so you brought some insight on your field and the way it is performed, at the very least in your group. And it is not nothing, and a try is usually rewarded in European universities (of course there are exceptions, but well that's case to case...).

As per your supervisor, that might be a bigger issue. As mentioned in the answer, and as I actually saw it happen to a friend of mine, you might not want to go against them. It will bring you further pressure, and you probably don't need it right now.

My advice would be, try to talk this through with them, and also your coworker (Assuming your have coworkers), and figure out what the best solution is with them. And do not fear to express you wishes, since you were involved for about four years in your project, it is but normal to feel attached to this project and having trouble to let it go.

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Consider starting another PhD at another university. Working together with your supervisor to get a PhD is hard enough. Working against him, you need to have pretty good results or some other allies.

Your three years won't be lost, as you probably learned a lot and will pick up a similar topic more rapidly and are able to do smarter choices compared to yourself three years ago. You might be able to finish your second attempt within three years.

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I got my PhD in Astrophysics few years ago. My best advice: search for another supervisor willing to continue with you from the point you stopped with your current supervisor.

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    This answer lacks some details, justification, elaboration.
    – usr1234567
    Aug 31, 2022 at 6:15
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One way or another, this is your supervisor's fault. If the title was your proposal and the project was designed by you, the supervisor should have evaluated that thoroughly before taking you as his PhD student. Secondly, a failed project is 50% of the supervisor's responsibility. The supervisor seems to be not experienced enough to salvage your research. These are signals that you should not continue working under this person.

Find a new supervisor with a PhD program at a new university, possibly outside the Netherlands but in the EU.

I hope you have published some papers. If that is so, there should be no problem with getting admission to another PhD program. Your previous experience will help you to streamline your next project. Therefore, never give up!

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  • Fine in theory but I have to question the feasibility of finding a new supervisor in a different university in the same country who would have the courage and interest in taking on an unknown and thus - to him/her - high risk PhD student at this point in the programme. I agree with your attribution of responsibility to the supervisor however. It should not have been posited as PhD topic if it were so risky and if "impactful" results were a requirement for a doctoral degree in the opinion of the supervisor - the latter coming to light on very recently. Naturally I find the latter idea odd.
    – Trunk
    Aug 31, 2022 at 12:04
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  1. I think you should immediately go to the Head of Department to discuss this situation. You really should bring a friend to this meeting to act as a witness should the HoD later try to deny the conversation. Do this even if you feel that the Head will not do other than support your supervisor's opinion as it's important to register the problem with the HoD as soon as practicable. Have your case clear beforehand, i.e. (1) how your supervisor as well as you undertook the programme with all the attached risk of unimpactful results; (2) how no serious criticism of your work was made by your supervisor till very recently; and (3) how your supervisor callously "advises" you to give up work entirely on this doctorate without any regard to the time and effort put into it nor to its professional impact on your career in research.

  2. Consult with your postgraduate students' association's Education Officer. See if similar scenarios occurred in the past - check any files they have - and what actions were taken. As before, bring a friendly witness to these meetings.

  3. If there's any member of your Department capable and willing to discuss the matter with you without partiality to your supervisor, please talk to them on the matter. The purpose of this is to get a fresh academic perspective on the overall study and see if an acceptable thesis can be salvaged from what's already done as well as potentially identify some new work that could add more impact to it. Do not broach on transfer of supervision to the other faculty member at this point. Just look to salvage a thesis from what your supervisor considers a wreckage of your work to date.

  4. On a personal level discuss the situation with someone friendly and non-academic so that you get some personal support through this.

These are the immediate steps.

You have to review all your work to date for yourself and coolly evaluate its merits yourself.

Perhaps after doing this you might consider making contact via this forum, or some other suitable one, with an academic in your general area of research with a view to getting their evaluation of your work done so far.

It's understandable that you are in shock just now. But you must gather yourself and not lose momentum towards gaining your doctorate by actively doing all you can to preserve the merit of your efforts.

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